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What’s Behind Rap’s Love Affair With Cryptocurrency

For about a month, 50 Cent was rap’s first Bitcoin millionaire. In January, it surfaced that the 700 or so coins he’d made selling his 2014 album, Animal Ambition, via the leading form of cryptocurrency had increased wildly in value, from a few hundred apiece to $10,000 each. Suddenly his stake was worth over $7 million. Underscoring how much of an afterthought (or a punchline) Bitcoin had been just a few years ago, the rapper wrote on Instagram that he’d forgotten all about “that shit.” But by February, 50 denied he still owned any cryptocurrency so that he could file for bankruptcy.

Part of the beauty of Bitcoin is that there’s little way to know who has it, how much, and what they’re spending it on; it’s why crypto has been used widely to sell and buy drugs. In that sense, crypto’s values seem to align with rap’s: there is no snitching. Quickly 50’s story captivated the public imagination. Here was the kind of absurd get-rich scheme chronicled in rap songs, playing out in real life.

Even with cryptocurrency still in its infancy, rap has already had a hand in shaping its perception. Whether it’s 50’s windfall, Nas’s push for crypto legitimacy, or Martin Shkreli’s further punchline-making (he claims he was scammed out of $15 million trying to buy The Life of Pablo in Bitcoin), the connection between the digital currency and hip-hop culture has grown and flourished over the last five years. Their relationship is built on shared interests in privacy, protection, and self-promotion. It is shaped by rap’s ongoing obsessions with hustling and trend-setting, so much so that cryptocurrency has quietly crept into the music itself. In an ecosystem where the concept of “new money” is widely celebrated, perhaps it is not surprising at all to see the currency banking on the promise of the future take hold.

Rap’s relationship with crypto began in 2013, before the currency had captured the public imagination. Snoop Dogg expressed interest in taking Bitcoin for an upcoming album. Donald Glover, doing promo behind Because the Internet, endorsed Bitcoin as the currency of the future: “Being backed by gold seems very old and nostalgic to me. Being backed to a Bitcoin, which takes time to actually make and there’s this equation that has to be done, that feels realer to me and makes more sense,” he told Time. By the following year, there was Coinye West, an altcoin designed after a “South Park” skit using the rapper as a punchline; West was less taken with the Bitcoin alternative than the media was, naturally, and successfully sued.

While other rappers dabbled, Nas positioned himself at the center of the cryptocurrency push. At SXSW in 2014, he hosted a panel championing digital currency alongside Ben Horowitz, the leading venture capitalist whose friendship with the rapper could be described as a well-known bromance. It is through Horowitz that Nas has become more involved with Bitcoin specifically, helping to raise millions in funding for BlockCypher, a startup that provides services for Bitcoin developers. Nas went as far as telling Coindesk, “Bitcoin will evolve into an industry as big, if not bigger, than the internet.”

In the years since Bitcoin’s rise, rappers have leveraged their personal currency into actual currencies. The hip-hop brand most eager to see its emblem on the digital coin is Wu-Tang Clan, seemingly bringing the “Chappelle’s Show” Wu Financial skit to fruition. Ghostface Killah created a cryptocurrency called CREAM (named for the Wu-Tang song of the same name), and through his firm Cream Capital, is looking to raise $30 million in funding and take over “more than half” the global cryptocurrency market by 2020. In March, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s estate announced, in honor of the late MC, the “Dirty Coin,” which allows fans access to ODB’s catalog, exclusive merchandise, and more. Half the charm of these lesser-used rap cryptocurrencies are the very rap marks they bear.

Cash in its physical form is an important symbol in rap, but hip-hop is just as obsessed with being forward-thinking and enterprising. Cryptocurrency speaks to rap’s fixation with future fortunes, offering an at-times-false promise of fairer wealth distribution ungoverned by Wall Street or national politics, truly democratized online. In turn, the cryptocurrency community has embraced rappers: Who better to push their financial technology into the mainstream than the world’s most flamboyant and immoderate spenders?

While many rappers use cryptocurrency to diversify their portfolios, some in the indie world see potential for change beyond their own bank accounts. They believe that cryptocurrency can affect how artists get paid, and even how future generations use money. Rappers like Mims and Nate Kodi have advocated for the use of hyper-secure blockchain technology as a means to achieve financial transparency in songwriting and royalty disputes. Big Baby Gandhi, who started accepting Bitcoin for his music on Bandcamp in 2013, sees rap as a crypto entry point for other people of color. “If rap exposes [cryptocurrency] to a different part of the population, then you’ll have people who have this chance to make money that wouldn’t have,” he told KQED. Meanwhile, outspoken cryptocurrency enthusiast Nipsey Hussle purchased an ownership stake in Follow Coin, which connects crypto novices with experienced traders in an attempt to build financial literacy.

For every idealistic crypto advocate in hip-hop, there is at least one rapper—probably someone who could be described as “very online”—using the idea of Bitcoin as a mere prop. On his debut mixtape, Amen, former Vine star Rich Brian (fka Rich Chigga) brags about investing in Bitcoin. YouTuber-turned-novelty-rapper RiceGum has a song called “Bitcoin,” a Bhad Bhabie diss track in which web clout is weaponized and Bitcoin is the currency of choice. These are rappers you’d expect to value digital money, but references are starting to pop up among less web-centric rappers as well. Wale (on “Staying Power”), Open Mike Eagle (on Czarface & MF Doom’s “Phantoms”), and Royce 5’9” (on PRhyme’s “Era”) have all rapped about cryptocurrencies in recent months, with each mention positioning the rapper as an idiosyncratic crypto magnate.

Thriving as well is the subgenre of crypto-rap, with its faux-hard verses detailing cryptocurrency financing. Chief among these mostly white rap bros are CoinDaddy, who left a career in commercial real estate to rap about Bitcoin, and Lil Windex, who released the unofficial anthem “Bitcoin Ca$H.” The subtext of these characters is that crypto and rap agendas naturally dovetail—a belief the altcoin companies are cashing in on as well. The blockchain and currency exchange SparkleCOIN recently celebrated a successful launch with a party featuring Snoop Dogg, Bow Wow, Trinidad James, and Drake’s dad, Dennis Graham. In exchange for a DJ set and private meet-and-greets with VIPs, Snoop walked away with a 1,500 SparkleCOIN donation (currently valued at $55,500) for his youth football league.

Between crypto companies eager to align with rappers and rappers eager to shift the culture in new ways, there are some stars who inadvertently end up shilling bad product. Lil Uzi Vert endorsed something called Drip Coin on Twitter, which seemed to really be an unsupported cloud mining service. The Securities and Exchange Commission actually warned against following celebrities like DJ Khaled into suspect crypto deals. The DJ was apparently being paid to promote a shady Miami Bitcoin company called Centra that was sued by investors and more recently charged with fraud, playing himself in the process. In the never-ending game of one-upmanship that is rap, and in the post-Diddy hip-hop landscape that prioritizes perceived business acumen, it makes sense that rappers would use a provocative resource to get a leg up on their peers—even if they don’t totally understand how it works. The pressure to be a vanguard of everything is real.

Wherever cryptocurrency goes, rap will likely be close by. They make for an odd couple, but they suit each other. The digital asset is in need of powerful voices to shout its praises and downplay its uncertainties, and rappers never stop looking for ways to build fortunes. There’s no telling, but maybe one day rap empires will be measured in cryptocurrency—in Bitcoin, or Litecoin, or Ethereum, or whatever’s next on the blockchain. After all, when 50 Cent said get rich or die trying, he didn’t specify how.

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